(The Hill) — The House committee investigating last year’s attack on the Capitol launched the opening salvo Thursday in its public case against Donald Trump, accusing the former president of masterminding an unprecedented scheme to retain power that was not only illegal, but also led directly to the deadly violence in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.
In a prime-time hearing aimed directly at television viewers, the select committee presented never-before seen video testimony from some of the most powerful figures in Trump’s orbit harshly dismissing his claims of a stolen election.
Those video snippets were interspersed with emotional, in-person testimony from a Capitol Police officer gravely injured during the attack; an appearance from a filmmaker with unique insights into the white nationalist groups who stormed into the Capitol to overturn Trump’s defeat; and raw footage of violent clashes between police and rioters outside the building, which left more than 150 officers with injuries.
For all the ground it covered, however, the real purpose of the prime-time hearing was to entice the viewing public by teasing the coming series of more focused hearings — all of them scheduled for this month — which the panel promises will show Trump at the center of a multi-pronged battle to remain in power through illicit actions.
Making that argument most forcefully on Thursday night was Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who was booted from GOP leadership for challenging Trump and has since emerged as the face of opposition to the 45th president for his role in the riot.
“All Americans should keep this fact in mind: On the morning of Jan. 6, President Trump’s intention was to remain President of the United States despite the lawful outcome of the 2020 election and in violation of his Constitutional obligation to relinquish power,” Cheney, the vice chair of the select committee, said in a lengthy opening statement that offered slivers of coming testimony from those close to Trump.
Her featured role in walking through the evidence shows the panel is eager to use the Wyoming lawmaker, one of the panel’s two Republican members, to add bipartisan legitimacy to the investigation and appeal to those who may think there is little left to learn about an attack that occurred more than 17 months ago.
She laid the groundwork for a series of hearings that appear set to pit Trump against his former vice president, Mike Pence, whose refusal to reject state electors on Jan. 6 — as Trump had demanded — made him a top target of the mob that stormed the Capitol that day.
Cheney said testimony from multiple White House staffers showed Trump’s disdain for the vice president, even as aides alerted him of rioters chanting “hang Mike Pence.”
“The President responded with this sentiment: ‘Maybe our supporters have the right idea,’” Cheney recounted. “‘Mike Pence ‘deserves’ it.’”
Cheney also issued a stern warning to those Republicans who continue to defend Trump even as the evidence mounts of his improper efforts to subvert democracy — a group that includes the same House GOP leaders who kicked her out of leadership.
“Tonight, I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain,” she said.
Much of Thursday’s hearing covered details that were previously known. But sprinkled throughout the proceeding were new revelations uncovered by the committee’s year-long investigation.
It was known, for instance, that multiple members of the GOP caucus had sought presidential pardons for their roles in the Jan. 6 attack. Cheney made news when she said Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) was among them — a claim Perry’s office has already denied.
In another revealing anecdote, Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told investigators that he spoke with Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows on Jan. 6. Meadows, Milley said, had urged him “to kill the narrative that the vice president is making all the decisions” because Trump went silent for much of the day.
“We need to establish the narrative, you know, that the President is still in charge,” Meadows said, according to Milley.
Investigators also aired damning video testimony from members of the extremist group the Proud Boys, affirming that Trump’s advice to white nationalists — “stand back and stand by” — helped spike the group’s recruitment. One said membership “tripled” in the wake of Trump’s remark.
The hearing additionally revealed that multiple people close to Trump, including his daughter Ivanka, were well aware that President Biden had won the election, even as Trump was claiming otherwise.
The seven subsequent hearings planned by the committee are each dedicated to what Cheney described as “a sophisticated seven-part plan” to remain in power.
Each preview for a hearing was accompanied by a vignette of testimony to come, a rapid-fire overview of evidence the panel otherwise plans to lay out over hours-long daytime hearings.
Previewing Monday’s upcoming hearing, in which the panel will make the case Trump knew his claims of widespread election fraud were baseless, the committee showed Trump campaign spokesman Jason Miller saying that Trump had been told even before the election “in pretty blunt terms that he was going to lose.”
And it relied on clips from former Attorney General Bill Barr — one of the more recent witnesses to sit with the panel’s investigators — saying on tape that there was ”absolutely zero basis for the allegations” and that Trump’s claims were “complete nonsense.”
“I told him that it was crazy stuff and they were wasting their time on that and that it was doing great, great disservice to the country,” Barr said.
Other planned hearings will go into Trump’s efforts to weaponize the Department of Justice and his efforts to pressure Pence.
“I recall towards the end saying, what you’re proposing is nothing less than the United States Justice Department meddling in the outcome of a Presidential Election,” former acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue told the committee.
The public also heard from Capitol Police Officer Caroline Edwards, one of the first officers injured in the attack, who gave powerful testimony in describing the Capitol riot as a “war zone.”
“It was something like I’d seen out of the movies. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were officers on the ground. They were bleeding. They were throwing up. They had, I mean, I saw friends with blood all over their faces. I was slipping in people’s blood. I was catching people as they fell. It was carnage. It was chaos. I can’t, I can’t even describe what I saw. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that as a police officer, as a law enforcement officer, I would find myself in the middle of a battle,” Edwards told lawmakers.
“It was just hours of hand to hand combat.”
Nick Quested, a documentary filmmaker who noted that he was appearing before the panel under subpoena, described his work following members of the extremist group the Proud Boys that day and watching as those who attended the march transformed from “protestors to rioters to insurrectionists.”
The hearing featured never before seen footage captured by Quested showing not just the violence of the riot but also the meeting between the Proud Boys and another far-right group, the Oath Keepers.
The filmmaker met them at 10:30 a.m. that day when they were walking down the Mall heading east toward the Capitol.
“I was confused to a certain extent why we were walking away from the president’s speech,” he said, “because that’s what I felt we were there to cover.”